Do Fundraising Incentive Programs Work? Yes, No, and Maybe.

Author: Jill Stewart on 5 March 2012 | 1 Comments

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Jill StewartPart one of a three-part series.
People love free stuff. In fact, they love free stuff so much they’ll do just about anything to get it. In some cases, it doesn’t even matter what the stuff is — as long as it’s free.

So what does this mean to organizations that rely on people to give their time and effort — even physical endurance in some cases — to raise money and generate awareness for their missions? Can free stuff (based, of course, on attaining certain benchmarks) be the carrot that motivates people to support your cause? It depends.

For the record, we’re not denying that fundraising incentives can work — and work well. We’ve seen this approach benefit a number of our clients who’ve offered fundraisers everything from water bottles to flat-screen TVs to tiny little buttons for accomplishing clearly established goals. (The latter, surprisingly, being among the most successful.) We often find ourselves working with third-party vendors that provide excellent services to those who choose to go this route.

But here’s the rub: Keep in mind that everything you do is a means to end, and sometimes short-term “wins” may not help you down the line. There are a number of issues to consider before taking the fundraising incentive leap.

First, ask yourself if you’re doing everything possible to communicate (and communicate frequently!) the importance of your mission and the importance of the dollars that your event participants will fundraise. Are you arming participants with fundraising tools and case messaging that they need to approach their potential donors? In our experience, we’ve found that most participants fundraise (or fundraise more) not because they were offered a prize, but because 1) they were asked to fundraise, and/or 2) they were given the tools to help them do the asking. Thus, prizes are no substitute for frequent, compelling mission messaging and fundraising tips and tools. If the messaging around your mission doesn’t resonate with your participants and volunteers to begin with, address that first. Adding or leading with “more compelling” messages about prizes will, at best, only return short-term results. You might see a spike in participation and fundraising from a fundraising incentive program, but will these people stay committed to your cause and continue their efforts long-term? Not likely.

Also, make sure you ask yourself how a fundraising incentive program will promote and support your mission — or, will it distract from and overshadow it? Sometimes, giveaways can develop a life and power of their own, with participants focusing more on the stuff and less on your cause. Think about the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. We all know about the multi-million dollar giveaways — but do you know what Publishers Clearing House does? Me neither. You don’t want people losing sight of your mission.

Finally, don’t forget to take a hard look at your resources and infrastructure to determine whether your staff has the time to plan, execute and fulfill a fundraising incentive initiative. Or, can your budget include outside help if needed? These programs are not cheap, and if you’re like most nonprofits, your finances are always top of mind.

So, before trying a fundraising incentive plan, make sure you’ve done everything you can to use fundraising for mission (and the good that you feel!) as the reward itself. If you are communicating frequently about mission and fundraising and are seeing a plateau in results, then it may be time to consider a prize program. But, make sure it doesn’t overshadow your mission and that you have the resources it takes to get the job done. In considering all of the pieces, you may determine that it’s not the right approach for your organization. Either way, keep communicating passionately about your cause — because increased awareness naturally attracts participants and volunteers who feel that simply helping is its own prize.

For those of you interested in trying a fundraising incentive plan, part two of this series will discuss which incentives work best, and part three will cover efficient prize distribution.

Jill Stewart is a Fundraising Consultant at Event 360. With 12 years of event fundraising experience, she has developed, executed, and managed robust, award-winning fundraising and communications programs for major non-profit organizations across the country. Jill holds a Bachelor of Science in Management from Purdue University and a Certificate in Fundraising Management from The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.


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  • Hi Jill,

    I'm very curious to see what our new prize incentive program will do for our hockey fundraising clubs. It's our first year to offer shiny flat screen TV's, MP3 players and cool 3D Game players.

    Our goal is to motivate kids to get involved and help their parents with the fundraising footwork to play hockey.

    I'll check and let you know what the results are. My hunch is that they will be a yummy carrot, and that our clubs will do even better this hockey season while they are out and about fundraising.

    Posted by Elizabeth, 07/03/2012 11:52am (2 years ago)

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